Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pirates of the corporation

After the surprising success of Dark Play, I was eager to check out the Apollinaire Theatre's current offering, Men of Tortuga, a new drama by Jason Wells which was developed at Steppenwolf. But alas, I'm duty-bound to report that neither the script nor the cast (above left) of Tortuga has the confident sheen of the earlier piece. Still, the show has its moments, and fans of legal thrillers may find it a satisfying-enough evening out.

To me, however, just about everything about Tortuga is a little too familiar, even though it's been capably constructed by Wells, who manages several deft twists in his last act. The trouble with this kind of writing, however, is that by now we expect several twists in the last act, even if we can't predict precisely what they're going to be; unexpected variations on the formula can't transcend its inherent lack of surprise. And the playwright's take on capitalism - that corporate raiders, like pirates (which I assume is the reference intended by the title; perhaps "Men of Grand Cayman" sounded too much like a calendar) aren't above simply murdering their opponents to get what they want - hardly counts as a new angle, either.

Wells clearly is attempting a minor variation on, say, Glengarry Glen Ross, only this time in the inner sanctum of some nameless corporation or law office. The suits the author assembles in this marble interior (which looks a bit more like a lobby than a boardroom, although its trompe-l'oeil effect is convincing) never give away exactly what threat they're trying to eliminate (or why), but it's clear that murder is what they have in mind; there's even a hot-headed weapons expert on hand to goose them along toward the best, and most cold-blooded, options available.

The first half or so of the play is intended, I suppose, as coldly "outrageous" black comedy, but we feel throughout that we're well ahead of the playwright's tactics. Wells gets a bit more traction from the inevitable introduction of a possible traitor into this corporate clique, and swings a compelling little debate over the Biblical account of Judas. But even here the playwright doesn't quite have the Mamet- or Pinter-like chops to limn anything new in the way of moral or metaphysical speculation from these developments. Still, the "surprises" keep coming from then on, and we watch with interest till the finish, just to see how it all turns out. So Wells may have promise, although I worry that he looks rather like the male answer to Theresa Rebeck, i.e. a craftsman who can smoothly re-purpose film and TV material for the stage.

At the Apollinaire, the actors are all the right ages, and have some skill, but generally can't project the sense of deep disguise that might give the goings-on a little more sense of mystery. Alain Groene Pieters as the weapons specialist has the most presence, but eventually begins to chew the scenery; meanwhile castmate Tom Giordano seems at first on the right track as the innocent in this crowd, but needs to grow up quite a bit faster once he understands exactly what's at stake. Danielle Fauteux Jacques directs crisply, but perhaps a bit naïvely. But then these days it's tough to be more jaded than your audience.

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